Mikhail Gorbachev, the Pizza Hut ad actor (opens in new tab) who presided over the political collapse of a sixth of the Earth, is inexplicably most famous for his tenure as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But when he was still with us, old Gorby actually had a storied career as a videogame character, popping up in all sorts of games to dispense wisdom, objectives, and crucial international infrastructure (opens in new tab).
Startlingly, there's been very little writing on Gorbachev's lustrous appearances in videogames. I intend to right this error. I'll be walking you through the highlights of the gaming career of the last premier of the world's first socialist state and ranking each appearance in turn.
I am not (entirely) unserious: before I chucked it all in to write about games, I was working on (without much conscious commitment, the way wind "works on" eroding stone) an academic career in Russian history.
But I'm now a professional videogames journalist, and to bring these two aspects of myself together I will be rating each Gorby according to a selection of powerfully outdated criteria: verisimilitude (to what extent does the game's Gorby resemble the historical Gorby), graphics (the technical and artistic success of Gorby's rendering), and fun factor (to what extent would I be up for grabbing a slice of Pizza Hut pizza with this Gorby). Ready? Let's begin.
6: Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War (2020)
The most recent Gorbachev on the list, and probably the one the biggest number of readers will have seen. It's also the worst.
Verisimilitude: Black Ops' Gorby is the quintessential party apparatchik: a middling rung on a very tall ladder, relaying orders from afar to the assembled rubes of the game's cast. And he smokes, which the real Gorbachev didn't. Now, to be fair, this is a man who has yet to ascend to the heights of his power and naivete, but as it is he comes across as a brow-beaten and tyrannical middle manager rather than the man who got so swept up in an optimistic vision that he didn't notice what was right in front of him. 3/10
Graphics: It's hard to deny that this is the most exquisitely rendered Gorbachev on the list. But, frankly, it's too good: the technical success only sharpens the artistic failure. Look at this guy, he's so boring I'm sick of looking at him! Bring back that other one (opens in new tab) who shuffles off when everyone starts talking about bunkers and looks weirdly like Vladimir Mayakovsky (opens in new tab). Now there's someone I can get into. 5/10
Fun Factor: Absolutely not. Could you imagine getting a drink with this guy? He'd talk your ear off about cement production quotas and how he skilfully got all his political opponents posted to manage chemical plants in Samara. Dull, dull, dull. 0/10
5: Reagan Gorbachev (2016)
A birdseye Gorbachev who has to team up with Ronald Reagan to shoot his way out of a kidnapping situation.
Verisimilitude: The real Gorbachev was not trained to operate a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher like that. On the other hand, he did firmly believe in international cooperation. 3/10
Graphics: The retro style does Gorby some real favours, especially compared to the very goofy-looking Reagan. This is a distinguished figure, a statesman, and his running animation looks like he has no conscious control of his legs, which I quite like. 6/10
Fun Factor: This Gorby has some stories to tell, but is probably so scarred by his experience—being kidnapped and killing a thousand men to escape—that he'd rather just stay home. 2/10
4: Toppler/Perestroika (1990)
Either a layered and meaningful game of the Soviet avant-garde or a Frogger ripoff someone put together in half an hour on a budget of negative 500 rubles. I can't tell. You can play it at the Internet Archive (opens in new tab).
Verisimilitude: Putting aside for one second that Mikhail Gorbachev was not an alarmingly well-endowed fly named "Democrat," does Toppler not communicate something fundamentally true about the experience of battling the inevitable to reform the shifting sands (or disappearing lily pads) of a stagnant politics? 6/10
Graphics: Mikhail Gorbachev was not an alarmingly well-endowed fly named "Democrat". 0/10
Fun Factor: Are you kidding? A night out with this guy would be pure chaos. The only downside is that you would invariably end up drowning and transforming into a crucifix. 6/10
3: Ganbare Gorby!/Factory Panic (1991)
Released as part of a broader effort to cultivate better diplomatic and cultural ties between Japan and the USSR, Ganbare Gorby! is a Japan-only version of Factory Panic that sees Gorbachev man a conveyor belt to deliver food to hungry citizens. It's also on the Internet Archive (opens in new tab).
Verisimilitude: Ganbare Gorby! sees our protagonist physically intervene to restructure the Soviet economy, diverting food from endless, circular conveyor belts into the hands of waiting citizens. He also goes up against entrenched hardliners by… breathing on them? Sure. 8/10
Graphics: Gorbachev looks kind of like a Batman villain in Ganbare Gorby! He runs around in a red jumpsuit and has, for reasons beyond my comprehension, dyed his hair purple. Still, he's undeniably recognisable, and at least he's more fun to look at than the Black Ops version. 6/10
Fun Factor: It'd probably be pretty fun to run around breathing on the cops for a while, but this guy's life revolves mostly around moving conveyor belts around. Can he even break for lunch without people starving? 4/10
2: Crisis in the Kremlin (1991)
A political sim which puts you right in Gorby's shoes: suppressing and removing the fruiting bodies of the political-economic rot that is slowly killing the Soviet Union. It, too, is on the Internet Archive (opens in new tab).
Verisimilitude: The most verisimilitudinous entry on this list. The Gorbachev in Crisis in the Kremlin faces all the horrible, draining, exhausting decisions that the Gorbachev of real life did. It's great. Admittedly, you can decide to completely reject all he came to represent and crack down with an iron fist, but that one's on you. 10/10
Graphics: There's not really much representation of Gorby himself in this one, beyond a photo—like a sweetheart's headshot in their lover's wallet—up in the top left corner. 6/10
Fun Factor: This would basically be a day out with the actual Gorby, so probably interesting for about an hour or two, but eventually you'll realise you've accidentally signed yourself up for a staid university lecture. 5/10
1: Street Fighter 2 (1991)
The classic arcade fighter. Gorbachev turns up in Zangief's ending to congratulate our hero and perform a cossack dance. I'm not sure this one was great for Japanese/Soviet diplomatic relations.
Verisimilitude: Street Fighter's Gorbachev shows a historically accurate degree of confidence in the indomitable spirit of the Soviet people. He does also perform a lengthy and energetic dance at a time when he would have been about 60 years old, though, so there is that. 6/10
Graphics: This is probably Gorby's best rendering on this list. You know who it is as soon as he leaps from his helicopter, and he cavorts with easy grace next to Zangief's bulk. 7/10
Fun Factor: I would cossack dance with this man until the sun swallowed the sky. 10/10
I should stress that this is purely a ranking of Gorbachevs. The quality of the game in which he appears is irrelevant, and doesn't factor into the final decision. I welcome all comments and criticisms that help me strive toward a more perfect tabulation of Gorbachevs, but please keep your fangs unbared if you feel I've unfairly slighted Ganbare Gorby! We all know it's a perfect videogame.